Chasing the Dragon

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I am taking a creative writing course. Every day, we have to write (madly, furiously) for 15 minutes, in the hope of cementing a daily habit. Our very first writing prompt was to talk about the first story we remembered hearing. I didn’t write about the first story, but I wrote about the most memorable one and, as I wrote, I realized something about my addiction to stories…

The best story I ever heard in my life was told, over the course of a winter, to me and my sister Erin. When we were growing up, my parents rented out the back part of our house to friends, so we always had extra adults around. It was wonderful. When Duffie and Debbie lived with us, we would go next door what seemed like every evening to listen to a story that Duffie would make up on the spot. The upper floor of their apartment was a big room. It had wide, wide plank floors and a peaked ceiling. It’s still a big room, but in my memory, it is cavernous – an entire world.

The story came with a map. Duffie drew it, a little bit at a time, on a plain, white piece of paper. It was an adventure story, a cross between Hansel and Gretel and The Hobbit, only I’m pretty sure that we (Erin and I) were the adventurers. There were bridges, forests, ogres, secret codes, and hidden passageways. When we had adventured all over one side of the page we crossed over to the other side, discovering new worlds as Duffie narrated and drew them. Sometimes we would double back. The story would make us return to places we had been before, and things would have changed. We were children, journeying through a strange world, but we had a guide in Duffie, who seemed to know the terrain and seemed never to run out of story.

One night, on my birthday, we were invited over to Duffie and Debbie’s for supper AND stories. They didn’t have much of a kitchen, as I remember. They sometimes ate with us, but this night, Debbie made pancakes over a portable stove. The pancakes were small, fairy sized, and served with jam.

It’s funny that it never occurred to us that they wouldn’t want us there every night. Here was a couple in their late twenties and every night their bed was invaded by children not his own. Well, even if they didn’t want us there, the story took over. Duffie knew it and so did we.

Eventually, the story ended, as I suppose all stories must do. The map was full of drawings — roads, trees, bridges, inns, and caves that we had crossed and recrossed. The paper was pocked and hammered from being held in eager fingers, but the lines were crisp and unstained.

When the story ended, it must have been a logical ending, because we didn’t feel cheated or anything. We all know a good ending when we hear it. But it was a crushing disappointment to know that that story was over. Worse still, it was an oral tale, told over an entire winter. The moment it ended it was as though all that was left was our memories — ephemeral childhood ones that we knew we had already begun the process of forgetting. Duffie had brought us through our quest intact and stronger — the goal of any good adventure story. He had left us with a longing for an experience we could never quite recapture but would continue hunting.

The map remained, of course. I remember sitting in the bed, amongst the crumpled sheets, and trying to commit it to memory —  the stories, the adventures, the places Erin and I had actually been, or so it seemed.

The next night we begged Duffie to let us return to that world but, as I recall, he refused. His next story was about a donkey. I felt a sickening feeling wash over me when I realized it would never be as good. The story was gone. In its place was a craving (an addiction?) for stories.

I still know it when I encounter it. You know it, too. The story that you don’t want to end. The story that your eyes race through to find out what happens, but where the language still sparkles and makes you look up from the page with wonder. That. And the books that you finish and start again, because you can’t bear to be outside that world. Sometimes you chase down stories by the same author but they’re never the same. I’m sure they knew it too, as they were writing. This. This is magic. I’ll be lucky if I can ever do this again.

The Story of Your Day

The books Owen has been choosing lately are HIS favourites, not mine. There’s just not that much to say about soft dinosaur puzzle books, or books about French vocabulary, or books about what is wrong with little Pookie (though this last one is pretty fun to read with a responsive toddler). I’ve managed to slide in a couple of books of A A Milne poetry (and have also discovered how intensely disturbing some of the poems in Alligator Pie are – more on that another time, perhaps?), but we’ve basically been doing the rounds of a bunch of books Owen loves and I… well… get bored with.

No matter what we read, lately, Owen is concerned that the characters in question are happy (he is, after all, the Minister of Happiness). He has a Thomas the Tank Engine book in which Thomas crashes into the station master’s house. Thomas’s expression is one of dismay, but Owen points to it and says “happy?” and keeps asking if Thomas is happy right up until the end when he really is happy again. He also really relies on the pictures to let him know if a character comes out of hardship alive. Words alone will not convince him if the picture is of a monster running off with a crying mum.

On that note, he actually bit my behind this morning… Uncharacteristic and surprising – he hadn’t bit me in a year or so. And a little painful. Anyway, he asked me right after I yelled at him if I was happy. “No,” I said. “Mummy’s not happy. Mummy’s sad because you bit her on the bum.” To which: “Mummy happy?” He still gets quite panicky when he realises that he’s upset us. He eventually hurt himself (not very badly) and started crying his eyes out. In the midst of his tears, he said: “Owen no happy. Owen sad!” and then, after getting verbal confirmation that I was again happy, he said (still crying, mind you) “Owen happy! (Waaah)” – quite the emotional roller coaster with this child.

The other thing he’s doing with books lately is asking to take the characters “out.” It started about a week ago, quite out of the blue. He picks at the page, saying “out. out.” Of course, you can’t get the pictures out of books. And he’s surprisingly unimpressed with stuffed animals in the shape of book characters. He wants the picture, not the stuffed animal… obviously.

In any case, at the end of our book reading sessions, every night, I’ve started telling Owen the story of his day (in part because sometimes he wants to read more and more and more books and I just need him to be sleeping). We sit in the dark (or half-dark) and I narrate an account of the day we had together. It’s nothing complicated. It includes things like waking up, what we ate for breakfast, and whether we went to the pool or the grocery store, but it’s still a story, with a beginning (you woke up) and an end (and now it’s time to sleep). Owen, no fool, usually asks for more – not “more story” but “mo’ park?” (if we went to the park) or “mo’ baby pool” (if we went to the wading pool) or “mo’ nunning down de l’eau?” (if we let him run himself into exhaustion down by the water). So sometimes I tell the story of his day twice. It’s kind of a nice ritual, because it reinforces how much we’ve done, even in a day where all I thought we did was a whole lot of nothing.

As always, I’d love to hear about your favourite books (or stories) and what helps your children (or you) drift off to dreamland.